By Alan Miller, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Alan Miller is Director of The New York Salon and Co-Founder of London's Old Truman Brewery. He is speaking at The Battle of Ideas at London's Barbican in October.
The increasingly common refrain that "I'm spiritual, but not religious," represents some of the most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society. The spiritual but not religious "movement" - an inappropriate term as that would suggest some collective, organizational aspect - highlights the implosion of belief that has struck at the heart of Western society.
Spiritual but not religious people are especially prevalent in the younger population in the United States, although a recent study has argued that it is not so much that people have stopped believing in God, but rather have drifted from formal institutions.
It seems that just being a part of a religious institution is nowadays associated negatively, with everything from the Religious Right to child abuse, back to the Crusades and of course with terrorism today.
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Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent - by choosing an "individual relationship" to some concept of "higher power", energy, oneness or something-or-other - they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.
That attitude fits with the message we are receiving more and more that "feeling" something somehow is more pure and perhaps, more "true” than having to fit in with the doctrine, practices, rules and observations of a formal institution that are handed down to us.
The trouble is that “spiritual but not religious” offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind.
What is it, this "spiritual" identity as such? What is practiced? What is believed?
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The accusation is often leveled that such questions betray a rigidity of outlook, all a tad doctrinaire and rather old-fashioned.
But when the contemporary fashion is for an abundance of relativist "truths" and what appears to be in the ascendancy is how one "feels" and even governments aim to have a "happiness agenda," desperate to fill a gap at the heart of civic society, then being old-fashioned may not be such a terrible accusation.
It is within the context of today's anti-big, anti-discipline, anti-challenging climate - in combination with a therapeutic turn in which everything can be resolved through addressing my inner existential being - that the spiritual but not religious outlook has flourished.
The boom in megachurches merely reflect this sidelining of serious religious study for networking, drop-in centers and positive feelings.
Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices.
A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there, a quote from Taoism and a Kabbalah class, a bit of Sufism and maybe some Feing Shui but not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an, let alone The Old or New Testament.
So what, one may ask?
Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book on the King James Bible, everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work.
Indeed, it was through the desire to know and read the Bible that reading became a reality for the masses - an entirely radical moment that had enormous consequences for humanity.
Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the "me" generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking, where big, historic, demanding institutions that have expectations about behavior, attitudes and observance and rules are jettisoned yet nothing positive is put in replacement.
The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world.
Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience "nice things" and "feel better." There is little of transformation here and nothing that points to any kind of project that can inspire or transform us.
At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position. Influenced by the contribution of modern science, there is a reluctance to advocate a literalist translation of the world.
But these people will not abandon their affiliation to the sense that there is "something out there," so they do not go along with a rationalist and materialistic explanation of the world, in which humans are responsible to themselves and one another for their actions - and for the future.
Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller.
He is right in a sense. Religion has been the inspiration for countless works of beauty, acts of kindness and (to an extent) human advancement. OK, I get it, but how can you invoke the positive Ying and not revile the malignant Yang. The Dark Ages, The Inquisition, The Crusades, Jihad, Catholicism and countless/endless individual acts of violence and deceipt carried out in the name of religion?
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Thank you ! My thoughts exactly.
Not to mention his constant generaliztions about such a broad subject and term. I dont get how so many people read this poorly written thing.
Without faith, what is your frame of reference for good? A nation without faith is a nation without a foundation. Glad to see so many justices attend red mass together!
Pretty simple: good is what improves people's lives.
Uh, I think you should turn that "red mass" mirror around. People are leaving organized religion for this very reason; because you and yours say "believe this way or else,,,," and when that is challenged, the challenger becomes part of the "red mass". I'm not a sheep and therefore don't follow the premise of blindly following the masses. I am not afraid of free thought; it is interesting that organized religion is afraid of it.
I am just amazed at the intolerance of the non-religious. And they call Christians "intolerant"! HA!
both sides can be intolerant
Yes, those silly "tolerant" religious zealots who have caused more bloodshed in the world based on differences in religous beliefs. No intolerance in that now is there? The facts are the facts, and it is noted that you said "Christians", therefore exactly showing your own intolerance for other religions that aren't based in Christianity. Funny how that works isn't it?
Did you read the article?
Religion is real important to some. Being a member of a certain faith in real important to some. Believing in the teaching of Christ is important to some. Their are around 300 religions in the USA. Choose one, or start your own religion. All religions were started by man and women.
But don't take religion to seriously. It can cause to hate other religions and people.
Agreed. It's fence sitting. If you believe in an actual God, that inevitably means there is more after this life and there is a purpose to this one aside from partying, doing what you feel like, "YOLO", and "trying to be nice to others". You've got to choose whether you're doing what God's eternal laws are (if you belive there is a God, of any nature), or whether you're just going to live on the World's standards.
how is this fence sitting?
The article is right. Those of us who consider ourselves spiritual but not religious don't look to anything organized. That's the whole point. Religion is about dogma and rules, whereas spirituality is about the soul. Just because you don't understand it, just because it scares you silly to be without some church telling you what to think and do, doesn't mean being spiritual is wrong. It just means you don't understand what your Jesus was telling you when he said God was not to be found in a building.
Well said, Michele.
Very well said.
God didn't invent man. Man invented god...
Man kills God, man invents dinosaur.
...dinosaur eats man, woman inherits the earth.
What rubbish – this is like telling others what to wear and what not – Youngsters are making wise decisions now a days taking good points from various religions – why is that wrong?
Another control freek who is so insecure in his own beliefs that he needs orgainized religion to help him think.
the author sorta reminds me a young boy who will annoy the little girl in pig-tails sitting in front of him in class – by putting her pig-tails into the ink bottle to cause her grief and him merriment.
sort of like that
not only that – they did it on purpose to annoy everyone – so the islams could laugh too
Just because you don't like to think for your self doesn't give you the right to try to push your lack of sight on to other people. "I am a Jealous God" really.... really.... really?????????? Are you serious. Jealousy is a Human emotion. You think for a second that the creator of all tings... ALL things is jealous ROFL..... Yes the bible was an important piece of literary history and still his but people have the right to think for themselves. We are here to live, not to be robots. OH I almost forgot. MORE PEOPLE HAVE DIED>> BEEN MURDERED OR SUFFERED because of your religion that any other CAUSE IN HISTORY OF SUFFERING. Spirituality teaches to accept no matter who you are or others are. More importantly, it doesn't instill in you that you are a dirty rotten sinner from the time you come out of your mother's womb thus making you feel guilty about living your life. Religion, like the evolution of live needs to widdle away, just like our tailbones did.
So the religion that you were tought by your parents just happens to be the one true religion! What a wonderful coincidence!
Thank you CNN for another stinking heap of an article. The author writes "Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either." For crying out loud! Not religious like me, therefore stupid.
It is clear to me Mr. Miller has no advanced knowledge or experience of the Divine. What turns people off are the "scribes and Pharisees,' the HYPOCRITES that one finds omnipresent. The surest way to find hypocrites is look at organized religion! They rationalize and justify their sin by presuming on the forgiveness of the Divine with NO REPENTANCE.
Repentance simply means 'leaving the sin behind.' One may only deem oneself forgiven when one no longer is enslaved by sin.
Great article! I love it. Thanks! Glory to God!
Well, we know at least one person was in the choir.
I think the guy on the beach is getting ready to sneeze.
It is very understandable why people whant to distance them selfs from religion. Religius people have realy lost the plot, some have lost their minde.
Hopefully at least we can spell.
Don't sweat feeble minded christians who wouldn't spare a moment of indignity to be caught considering that, until they die, they're just holding on to a lottery ticket, not a boarding pass. If they can cling to a typo, they've won the argument. It's like trailor trash beating Stephen Hawking at scrabble and somehow declaring his knowledge is useless.
Spirituality is not fence sitting, it predates man made religion. I know I have ascended higher spiritually and my connection with the creator has gotten deeper because of meditation (listening to the creator) and prayer (talking to the creator) and communing with the spirit of my ancestors. Not because of some man in a black robe dictating prayers to me, interpereting "god's infinite word" with his own limited human understanding.
My self-established spiritual connections are more valid, more real and way more beneficial to me than fabricated white jesus and a book that was "translated and REVISED (meaning its NOT the original, see the first page of your KJV book)" that was only published in 1612. Bible readers: do you study or cite Bishop's bible, Geneva bible, Tyndale bible, Coverdale bibe, and all these other versions? Why so many versions if there is only one truth?? Religion limits God to your human understanding. I overstand that God is infinite, formless, and limitless, so to put God in the form of fake Jesus or whoever and say thats the be all end all is just plain silly.
My ancestors collective conscious goes back thousands of years, I trust their guidance, principles and spiritual enrichment over any so called messiah.
All of todays so-called major religious of today are simply watered-down and/or perverted versions of ancient spiritual systems that predate so-called doctrines. Christianity is a suckling baby in comparison to Dogon, Ifa and Kemetic spiritual systems, I would never trade in tens of thousands of years of spiritual thought for a mere two thousand and a cheap knock offs of the originals. Take it back to the source, we've been lied to.
this is one of the things wrong with human kind. if there were more spiritual folks, and a lot less of organized religion, this world would be a better, more peaceful place....
The real danger is following a religion. You can't think for yourself, someone has already done it for you.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.